After two weeks of protests across Kazakhstan, the Kazakh government has stalled the implementation of land code changes that drove people into public squares in protest. The changes to the land code–which open state-owned land to privatization and possible renting by foreigners for up to 25 years–were signed into law in November 2015 and were due to go into effect on July 1. As many as 1,000 people protested the changes in Atyrau on April 27 and over the weekend hundreds of people attended protests in a dozen other cities across the country.
Although President Nursultan Nazarbayev’s initial reaction was to point to unnamed provocateurs for stirring up trouble, he seems to have changed his tune, putting a moratorium on the implementation of the land code changes until 2017 and pushing his economy minister, Yerbolat Dosayev, out the door. Dosayev was certainly scapegoated, but Astana walking back on the issue and accepting the reality of public frustration is significant.
According to Reuters, Nazarbayev said Thursday, “If our people do not understand and trust the decisions that have been taken, then it is not right (to press ahead with them).” The government, Nazarbayev said, failed to explain the land code changes. In a video posted to the president’s press service Facebook page, Nazarbayev candidly addressed the issue and directed his government to form a commission to address public concerns about the changes.
The issue of selling land to foreigners became the focal point of protests, but transparency and corruption were also issues very near the heart of public anger. Astana bungled explaining a policy regarding a sensitive issue to the Kazakh people and has long neglected the role the public should play in crafting policy.
Nazarbayev putting the implementation on hold is significant. On one hand, this is a visible recognition of public sentiment on the part of the Kazakh government. On the other, it is a reaction aimed at self-preservation. Public protests are rare in Kazakhstan and it takes considerable frustration to push people to the streets. The real developments will be in the coming weeks and months as we see how Astana either fulfills the promise to better communicate policy changes and factor in public sentiment in crafting policy or fails to learn from this experience.